Deep in the rainforests of Central and South America grows the pods of the Theobroma Cacao tree, the source of chocolate in all its delectable forms. The tree itself has evolved to grow beneath a canopy and is always close to a source of water. It produces little white flowers that become oblong yellow pods when fully mature.
Within these pods grow a cluster of about 40 to 50 beans set in a tasty white pulp, the source of cocoa butter. The beans will be dried and treated to cultivate the rich chocolate flavor that has become famous around the world and for good reason.1
Ancient History of Cacao
Believe it or not, cacao was getting well established in the Americas roughly the same time the Roman Empire was rising to prominence in the Mediterranean. In Mesoamerican culture, the cacao fruit and tree were sacred and highly valued. Cacao beans were used as a currency, medicine, and a special dessert only reserved for the rich and famous in Olmec and Mayan culture. Later cacao was an important tribute sent to the warlike Aztecs.2
There has been so much chocolate history in the Americas, historians aren’t sure if it originated in the Amazon and later made its way north to Mexico, because the reverse is also a possibility. Each Mesoamerican culture has mythologies surrounding the sacred plant. The name Theobroma literally translates to “food of the gods.”
Know the Difference: Cacao vs Cocoa
At this point, some people may feel a little confused about the differences between chocolate, cocoa, and cacao. Understanding the not-so-subtle differences between these products is essential to getting the most health from your diet plan.
Chocolate is the final product of the cultivated cacao bean. It may be in the form of white, milk, or dark chocolate and some of these can be pretty high in sugar so caution is advised. Keep in mind that dark chocolate carries the greatest nutrients. Milk and dairy products actually thwart the efficacy of flavonoids.
Cocoa is the powder sold at the supermarket from which chocolate cakes, brownies, and milkshakes can be made. Choosing how to prepare your cocoa for maximum health is very important. Cocoa undergoes a heating process that diminishes its nutrient profile, but it is still very healthy.
Cacao is the purest and most natural form of this nutritious superfood. Cacao is unprocessed and in some parts of the world, it is eaten with minimal processing, just like peanuts. Cacao beans are one of the highest sources of brain healthy nutrients like magnesium. They also carry high quantities of dietary fiber. Cacao beans are chopped into bite-sized nibs which can be slow cooked to a paste or ground into cacao powder.
Nootropic Benefits of Cacao
Cacao is not only a delicious source of chocolatey goodness but a superfood endowed with a wide range of health benefits in the best form possible. What follows are a few of the nootropic benefits in healthy cacao.
Chocolate carries a high content of phenylethylamine or PEA, which causes an amphetamine-like response in the body.
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When ingested, PEA encourages the release of special feel-good chemicals called endorphins. These are the very same ones that cause euphoria when close to a special someone. The release of norepinephrine and dopamine can greatly enhance cognitive function and inspire next level creativity. It’s almost like being in love.3
As a matter of fact, the heart-pumping endorphin-releasing power of chocolate is so potent that studies have found it is on par with kissing a special someone. The buzz derived from dark chocolate actually lasts 4 times longer than the psychosomatic reactions from a passionate kiss. No wonder this is such a popular gift exchanged between sweethearts.4
Anandamide is a neurotransmitter in the brain used to regulate a healthy appetite, fight off the effects of depression, and maintain a healthy database of stored information. Anandamide is found in cacao and naturally bonds with CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. These are the same receptors that are affected by the presence of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
Anandamide derived from ingested chocolate or raw cacao is absorbed by the body and easily passes through the blood-brain barrier. It carries relaxing, feel-good benefits to the brain for enhanced cognitive function. Just a small square of chocolate is all that is needed to gain a measure of mental peace and power to reassume efforts with vim and verve.5
Chocolate contains a wealth of flavonoids that have very specific benefits to improving the conditions of the brain. The nootropic effects of chocolate are all-encompassing and touch on every aspect of nootropic use.
Epicatechin is one such flavonoid that has great benefits to the cognitive processes and has been found to prevent age-related cognitive decline in test subjects. This is because this flavonoid is also a potent antioxidant that works to inhibit neuronal death caused by increased levels of oxygen radicals, a condition known as oxidative stress.6
Furthermore, chocolate stimulates the production of important neurotransmitters that improve the function of the brain and prevent the early onset of dementia-related conditions. Chocolate even supports brain plasticity, which allows the brain to evolve to its needs as time goes by.
Improved Blood Flow
Theobromine is a healthy constituent of cacao, a potent antioxidant, and a vasodilator with a significant medical history. This plant-based drug has been especially useful in treating hypertension and other conditions of the heart and blood. As a vasodilator, theobromine widens the blood vessels allowing a greater flow of blood.7
The healthy levels of flavonoids in chocolate also function as a tonic for blood circulation and provide a health boost for blood vessels. Healthy circulation is essential for improved cognitive processes and the avoidance of ischemic damage. The brain only needs to be deprived of oxygen for a brief moment before ischemic damage begins killing valuable neurons.8
Top-notch blood flow is essential to support the high demands of the brain in action. If you feel like your work week is going to be extra tough on your mind, take a preventative dosage of cacao to bolster your cognitive function.
Final Thoughts on Cacao for Good Health
Chocolate is a superfood with brain benefits and is oftentimes used as a dietary supplement. It may seem almost too good to be true and in a couple of ways, it is.
Even though chocolate is one of the healthiest delights on the planet, it can be served up in some unhealthy ways. Stay clear of the cheaper processed varieties and look for the dark chocolate in its most natural forms.
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